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Another cure for whisky's carbon hangover

Another cure for whisky's carbon hangover

Posting in Energy

Looking for a greener way to take the edge off? The Scots are, too. A Scotch distillery on the Isle of Islay takes a shot at cutting whisky's carbon footprint.

The stink of methane is not what comes to mind when dreaming of the warm, sweet smells of a whisky distillery. But Scotland's Bruichladdich Distillery is hot on the scent of a whisky industry with a cleaner finish. The company says its operations on the Isle of Islay now run 100 percent on methane produced on its seaside grounds.

Until recently, the 130-year-old distillery had fed its spent barley (draff), which is locally grown, to the island's cattle. But they threw their pot ale (the leftover swill of dead yeast and water) into the ocean. Transporting the pot ale to a different stretch of coast where a pipe would expel it into the Sound of Islay was pricey. The yearly cost was around $30,000. But now that pot ale helps with the electricity bills, as feedstock for the distillery's new anaerobic digester. Under oxygen-free conditions, microorganisms within the digester break down the organic waste product and convert it to methane, which is then burned for power. Water is the only byproduct. Farmers use similar digesters to produce electricity from cow manure.

Back to the Scotch. Bruichladdich makes around 46,000 cases of single malt whisky annually. With that comes thousands of tons of pot ale. The company customized its digester, The Independent reports, by breeding microbes to specifically handle the pot ale from this distillery. In addition to their previous transportation costs, their new disposal strategy reportedly saves the distillery almost $250,000 a year on electricity. Installing the device came in at around $450,000.

The Independent quotes Bruichladdich's owner Mark Reynier:

Our farting microbes are farting methane to power our generator which in turn feeds into the distillery's electrical distribution network [this also fuels Reynier's electric car].

I'm no eco-warrior. There are so many hare-brain environmental schemes out there and in the whisky industry that just don't work or are simply PR exercises. This, though, was a very interesting concept that made good business sense.

Reynier told CNN they had also looked at biomass and other renewable technologies for the business before opting for biogas. No numbers were given on just how high the emissions for the $6.5 billion whisky industry are. But like the man said, this isn't the first round of shots Scots have taken to lower them.

Earlier this spring, the UK government approved of a 10-megawatt tidal array for the waters off Islay. In somewhat similar ventures as Bruichladdich's, Helius Energy recently announced plans to build a 7.2-megawatt power plant in Speyside that will burn whiskey waste and woodchips, providing about 9,000 homes with electricity. Beverage giant Diageo is also currently constructing a $150-million bioenergy plant in Fife to capitalize on their whiskey waste and save water to boot. A Scottish university has even entertained the possibility for whisky-powered cars by converting pot ale and draff to a butanol additive for gasoline.

Should these projects succeed, we could soon toast to taking the edge off with less green guilt. Drinking tastes, however, don't always coincide with one's zeal for clean energy. If you prefer American whiskey, you can drown your carbon sorrows in the knowledge that those bottles travel fewer miles to get to your stateside liver. Further, brewing beer is reportedly less energy-intensive than distilling whisky, but ounce for ounce beer drinkers tend to imbibe more. So pick your poison.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons and Flickr/Joshua Rappeneker

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure